Your employee handbook is awful, but we can fix it.

We’re going to talk a little bit about the employee handbook in this post. You know, the good ol’ employee handbook: you get it during on-boarding, you never really look at it, and two years later you find it in some drawer when you’re cleaning your desk or house.   

That’s how most people intersect with the employee handbook, but the whole deal could be a lot better.

I guess it would be helpful to begin with two basic realities here. First, the employee handbook is deeply tied to on-boarding. That’s when you receive it at most jobs. Unfortunately, on-boarding is largely a train wreck at most companies — probably in large part because it’s owned by HR, and no “true business people” care about HR. The biggest problem with most on-boarding deals is that they’re wholly transactional. This is your first day at a company, which is a big deal in your life. Instead of playing to that big deal, it’s mostly about email addresses, forms, and quick one-off meetings. The employee handbook is a part of that. It’s typically transactional and not transformative.

Now, the other issue is that for most people, an employee handbook is a “cover yourself” move. It lists stuff you can and cannot do, so you peruse it to make sure you’re good on certain fronts. Then, a year later when you posted something awkward on Facebook, you run back to the employee handbook and see if your boss can fire you. If you live in America, let me make this simple: yes, your boss can fire you. It’s actually somewhat common!

So, can we make the employee handbook a more transformational deal? Let’s try.

The employee handbook and improving on-boarding in general

Since the employee handbook is notably a part of on-boarding, let’s try to improve that first. Start with this concept of business storytelling — it’s become more and more important. Customers want to see brand stories, and billionaires want to see origin stories in pitch decks. That’s the first thing your on-boarding needs: to be about stories. The company. Its origins. The people. This will tie back to the employee handbook, too — we’ll get to that in a second.

Your employee handbook is likely a boring tire fire. How can you make it better? 

The second thing your on-boarding process needs is authority. People generally want to be liked and respected by others — in short, they want to be seen as relevant. They just went through a long hiring process with you, and they want to come in and start proving their value and worth. Instead of letting them do that… we bury them in pointless forms and paperwork. On-boarding, as a result, sucks and lacks authority. This is kind of the same issue with the employee handbook.

The third issue with on-boarding is measurement. Most companies love “what’s measured is what matters,” and it’s hard to measure on-boarding. (There’s the conventional idea of “This guy sucks and isn’t a fit” vs. “This guy is great,” but you can’t really tie either directly to on-boarding.) Now, it’s hard to “measure” the effectiveness of an employee handbook either — aside from surveys — but that’s the third thing we need to consider here.

Agile ConsultationThe employee handbook: Some ideas

Here’s a good article on Fast Company called “How to create a handbook employees actually read.” It’s all by some guy who wrote a book called Managing for Happiness, which seems like a noble goal that most managers totally whiff on. Here are the tenets of a good employee handbook per this dude:

  • Real stories of how people apply the company’s values
  • A big list of core values (based on managerial votes and regular employee votes)
  • Turn this all into a “culture book” instead of an employee handbook
  • Have employees maintain it, as opposed to HR

You can also keep it light, such as this example from Valve:


Let’s run through some of these ideas quickly.

The employee handbook: Move it away from HR

I’d concur with this. Look, there are some fun people and insightful people that go into HR — but by and large it’s very compliance-driven people. They’re going to create a super dry employee handbook, and/or one that’s entirely designed to please the execs or set it up to make it easier to fire people when layoffs are needed to prove CAGR at FY closeout. That’s just the reality.

The easiest place to move it would be marketing, but the response would likely be:

  • “We’re slammed! Isn’t this a HR thing?”
  • “OK, cool! We’ll make it a super sales-y document like we do everything else!”

Since the sales part of the process would be recruiting, and recruiting is over at the time someone gets their employee handbook, this would be a mistake. Some companies have “culture departments” — read: spreadsheet jockeys who don’t have a seat at the table — and that’s another landing spot.

I try to think about work in different ways, and I also try to call out some managerial nonsense we’ve all experienced. If that kinda sorta interests you, I do a newsletter every Thursday. Feel free to join up.

My vote would be a mix of HR (compliance/legal), marketing (“fun” stuff), executives (stories and purpose), and finance/accounting (a section explaining how the company makes money).

The employee handbook: The core values problem

“Listing core values” and “living core values” sound the same, but are 128 percent different. The former is static; the latter is dynamic. Companies grow from being dynamic. The problem on the core values side is that no one cares. Core values don’t matter to executives — because they can (and do!) regularly break them and very little happens. And if they get canned? It’s probably going along with a nice golden parachute. See: Fargo, Wells.

This is all about the gradual decline of ethics in the workplace, but let’s avoid that rabbit hole.

Rather, look … core values, culture, etc? Those things are important. They set the tone for all other behaviors. Executives need to care, but often do not. That’s really where the problem begins. So as for how you weave core values into an employee handbook, well, I’m not sure. Most people would include a list, and that’s certainly one approach — but it’s hardly effective.

I would do it through stories. Maybe 1-2 execs, 1-2 middle managers, and 1-2 rank and files. Rather than listing a core value like “Serve with purpose,” have a middle manager explain how he/she served with purpose through a problem — or revenue erosion. That’s a lot more powerful than some line of black Arial text, IMHO.

The employee handbook: What should it have, ideally?

My votes:

  • Standard information like days off, etc. (HR “owns”)
  • A section on job roles and who “owns” what (yes, this would have to updated semi-regularly)
  • The origin story
  • Examples of how the core values play out
  • Fun stories/photos of working there and cool stuff the teams have done together
  • A section on volunteering and giving back
  • How does this company make money?
  • Discounts and other programs available to employees
  • A page where 10-12 employees talk about the most awesome thing they’ve done while working there

This seems like a good start for an employee handbook. It’s not too compliance-feeling, it has some stories, it has some authority, etc. It hits the key points but isn’t completely dry and there’s some context and narrative behind it.

What else would you say about an optimal employee handbook?


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